Nidhogg is a game that has you continually swearing, exclaiming "what?!", and laughing, all because you just can't stop bungling your attempts to stab your enemy in the balls.
Messhof's fencing/stabbing/rolling/punching/neck-breaking game is finally out after four long years of development, and it rings in 2014 with significant fanfare. Much like how a little indie game - Samurai Gunn - was one of the best multiplayer games last year, Nidhogg will likely be one of the best games of 2014.
You and a friend (or an enemy) control two fencers. You can fence normally, if you like - poking high, middle, or low, and attempting to deflect your enemy's sword - but fighting doesn't always conform to the traditional swordfighting rules. Divekicking towards your opponent's head, sliding under him to pin him to the ground and break his neck, and hurling your sword into his bowels are all completely legitimate (and encouraged) ways to play Nidhogg. Once you've killed your enemy, you are directed to run towards one side of the screen. Your eventual goal is to make it from the center screen of each level to the edge, where you are consumed by the titular Nidhogg. However, the dead player does not stay dead for long; he always respawns in your path, ready to kill you and start sprinting towards his goal instead.
This variety of player interaction is what elevates Nidhogg above its peers. Potential strategies include standard fencing, rushing down an opponent and attempting to overwhelm him with stance changes (low kicks to divekicks, that sort of thing), or simply running for it. It's somewhere between platformer, fighter, fencer, and tug of war, and the strange intermingling of styles does well to keep every game fresh.
While there is a singleplayer for those without the desire to play multiplayer, and online multiplayer for those without the desire to play locally, Nidhogg shines most as a local multiplayer game. With native support for tournaments, neat variant modes (such as Spine Sword, where cracking your opponents neck makes you rip out his spine as a new sword), and no latency, Nidhogg makes for the perfect spectator sport. The thrill of watching two players constantly struggling with every fiber of their being to win against the other is palpable, almost entirely because death is instant (and brutal) without removing the capacity for entertaining turnarounds.
If there's one place Nidhogg does lose its luster, it's online multiplayer. Matchmaking is currently broken, with long wait times to be matched and glitches involving joining a matchmade game instead of the game you were properly invited to. The online netcode itself loses coherency quickly; desyncs and warping are problematic, and crop up regardless of ping (although lower pings make them rare). If you can maintain a decent ping to a friend, though, you'll have plenty of fun stabbing each other over and over.
Nidhogg also sports a rather divisive style. With chiptune music and abstract visuals, it draws a lot of comparisons to retro gaming. The style is definitely inspired by the likes of classic Prince of Persia and glitch art, but it's a pleasing, consistent, and (most importantly) readable style. It's definitely not for everyone, so make sure to watch the trailer before picking it up to see if you're okay with the aesthetic.
Competitive multiplayer is best when it's more about the mindgames players engage in than the actual movements they make. The fumbles, careful positioning, and lightning fast reversals are what make competitive games fun. Nidhogg, much like its indie kin Samurai Gunn and Towerfall, is the principle of sheer, bloody, competitive fun distilled to a pure essence. It's the first notable release of 2014, and it sets a bar for the rest of the year that may be tough to match.